The Life is Strange games made me a fan of DON’T NOD, but their games that don’t quite follow its structure have failed to resonate with me. It was the case with Vampyr, and I enjoyed Tell Me Why, but unfortunately DON’T NOD’s latest project did not captivate me in any way I hoped.
The game puts you in the shoes of Polly, a young woman who returns home in search of her mother only to find out she has clairvoyance and is a deity in named Harmony in the dimension of Reverie. Harmony then finds she’s tasked with stopping a rapture that’s a threat to the balance of the world and its deities.
It’s a pretty wild plot, but the gameplay or lack there of gets in the way of the game becoming anything memorable.
Lush, yet limited animation reminiscent of weekday afternoon superhero cartoons help tell the story, but they’re few and far between. This is unfortunate because the animation in addition to the game’s art style is absolutely beautiful, and it’s the only thing about the game that kept my eyes open during late nights.
At its fundamental core, the game is a visual novel and with that, obviously heavily choice-based as far as its gameplay goes. The problem is all the agency takes place in the Augural, a grid filled with nodes where you can see that every decision you make can lead to a plethora of different possibilities based on the paths you’ve taken and previous choices you made. Even something as basic as a yes or no (and it’s always more complicated than that) takes you away from the action and back to that universal grid of nodes. Each time it does that, you deal with a load screen. While they aren’t terribly long, it’s still taking you in and out of the action, making it harder to follow. Throw in the fact that early on, you’re introduced to terminology that means totally different things–“Aspirations” and “Reverie” just to name a couple, and maybe it’s due to my own idiocy, but it was just a mess to try and follow.
Making up for it is the fact that the voice acting in the game is superb, and their performances lend favorably to the overall tone the story takes. Despite my annoyance of constantly having to wait to get into the Augural, making a choice, having to wait to get into Reverie, listening to confusing conversation, before having to go back into the real world to see how my decisions played out only for this cycle to happen again in a different fashion (see how tiring this is?)–the fact that I still cared about the characters and how my choices affected what was happening is a feat in and of itself.
When I play a game like this, particularly a narrative game like the ones DON’T NOD made themselves famous for making, I try to put myself in the protagonist’s shoes making decisions that I believe they’ll actually make. There’s more to it than that in this game. Decisions you make not only affect your relationships with Aspirations, but they also affect the variety and freedom you’ll have for prompts later. If you stay pigeonholed to making decisions that favor Power for example, you’ll eventually be locked into only acting the way that Power Aspiration would act. In other words, choices you’d actually prefer to make later won’t be available because you chose to act a certain way a few decisions before. The game actually gives you full agency by seeing how each and every choice you make will work out, which begs you to think ahead rather than on your feet. It’s a really clever system, but again, it’s unfortunate that it had to be so disjointed when it comes to the game’s overall flow. It would’ve been better if the Augural could be used while you’re in the conversation instead of taking you out of it first. Maybe I’m just too used to “Clementine will remember that”, but something as simple as that really made me feel good or bad for the decisions I came to make.
Playing through the game often felt like a chore because of it’s tired core loop along with the fact that there was hardly any action outside of the game’s nice cutscenes. I played the game on a Switch OLED, and its visual style really lent itself well to the brightness and quality of the handheld’s screen. At the same time, it also might’ve been a detriment because the lack of power with the Switch is probably what made the cutscenes feel so long in the first place. I ended up rolling credits at about 12 hours in, and while I did think the story was ended up compelling, it was a slog and I feel no desire to get the other endings. Heck, I think I only clocked that amount of hours because I’ve fallen asleep playing the game after midnight quite a bit.
Lastly, let me be honest here… this isn’t DON’T NOD’s fault, but this game came out right in the middle of me enjoying The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom in addition to having other shorter titles I also had to review under embargo, so that’s part of why it’s so late. I felt pressured to finish it because the game’s PR people actually followed up on content and I felt bad about it. As the site’s head of content, I try not to be the guy that claims codes for games he won’t review, and that’s harder to do these days as I’m and old-school person who misses the days of physical review copies I can send to another staffer in case it wasn’t clicking for me, but hey — I’m just rambling at this point.
In all, Harmony: Fall of Reverie is a beautiful title with a heck of a story, but the lack of any real action and its disjointed, but very promising decision system could definitely be a deterrent to a lot of people who don’t have the patience for a game that doesn’t click within the first two hours. Because of that, it’s hard for me to recommend at its $24.99 price tag–not when you have so many other huge new titles to play right now. This is one of those games I wished was on Game Pass, but we’re not in that world.